Beyond the compressor room The business of compressed air

Beyond the compressor room: The business of compressed air

April 20, 2024
"Can that air audit be more inclusive? Can it include reliability improvements, rather than just energy savings?"

Whether you're a small business or a large industrial operation, choosing a compressed air service provider can significantly impact your efficiency, productivity, and bottom line. This sponsored podcast chat features Tony Montalto, the Director of Technical Product Management at FS-Curtis, as he reveals practical tips and strategies to help you navigate the selection process with confidence and make an informed decision that aligns with your goals and requirements.

Listen to Tony Montalto on Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast

PS: Let's go to the second area we blocked out, which we called “beyond the compressor room” and for our listeners, frankly, this is more the sales side of the business. What are some of the considerations that end users should pay attention to, when they're talking to potential service providers about the sales side, once you get beyond the machines themselves? What issues come up that they have to be aware of?

TM: OK, good. Yeah, we mentioned energy savings when we first started, but it could be important on the sales side. It may not be they have a sales department, it could be the owner of the company does the selling, but is there someone knowledgeable enough to do an air audit in your plant? To me, it's just not all about energy savings, even with an air audit. You would think air audit = how much energy can I save, and again it could be solution: “buy my new air compressor. You'll save energy and it's going to have a variable speed drive on it. Whatever.” 

But can that air audit be more inclusive? Can it include reliability improvements, rather than just energy savings? Would you notice maybe the room is too hot, or the ducting isn't proper? That that should be part of the audit, some of the mechanical things. Is your maintenance going well? That could be part of your report. Did anyone ever adjust your controls to run more reliably? With air compressors, the bread and butters, the lubricated rotary screws, you'll see most of them stop pumping or unload at 125 and reload at 110, right from the factory, and no one ever touches it. Why not adjust it, tweak it? Can that be part of your air audit, the reliability, the mechanical part of it versus the energy savings? 

The other thing on the on the sales side is you know. I would look into what factory are they aligned with if you need to buy a new air compressor. Nowadays some will have four or five brands versus focusing on one, and their sales strategy is, “oh you need something? let me look through all my brands and see what the lowest price unit is.” The end user aren't always about the price, that may not be what's interesting or the most important to them. 

Some may prefer to have one line, and they’re maybe considered a platinum distributor for that one line, and you're an expert on that line and you have a relationship with that manufacturer you represent. There could be issues and maybe the manufacturer would send someone to help with the issue, maybe you have influence with that manufacturer on problems, because you’re such an expert, you focus on that one line. You're not just selling the latest flavor of what's going on out there. 

And then the manufacturer of that of that equipment themselves, they've been around, and that's something that that could be important to the end user. There's some manufacturers that seem like they're popping into the United States and they want a piece of the US market, they want to get market share and they're offering this low pricing. Look into that, is the lowest price compressor really the right solution, or something online or something like that. Are you really going to get the support you need from that manufacturer.

For the manufacturer themselves, if it's a big name or a small name, how are they set up? Can they give the service provider fast, reliable answers? Do they have a portal? How about things like that? It could be they just move into the United States and have a big warehouse, not really a factory. Do they have a portal where you could look up things, see what's in stock, or pull manuals down and wiring diagrams? These things are important, especially if you need to move quickly, like for a manufacturing plant, a portal to put download information. Do they have customer service departments, tech help? Some people do like that, prefer that, they get better support when the factories themselves have been around a long time and have all these different departments to help. 

The other thing you mentioned about looking past the compressor room, is can that sales engineer or let's say owner that may do the selling, can they give really good advice? Can they be a solutions person, not just “hey buy my new compressor,” can they look at the piping outside of the compressor room? Is the piping too small? Do they have that knowledge where they could do certain calculations, and that engineering side where they could give good advice, really be a solutions person. 

There’s something called artificial demand, it's when your pressure is so high, you're always going to have leaks in the manufacturing plant, right? Always. Brand new hoses and quick couplers that are dropped down to the machines that make the widgets, they always leak brand new. OK, so you're going to have leaks. If you have 125 PSI at that leak, you're going to leak a lot more air than if you have 90 PSI at that leak, right? Just common sense, but a lot of times it's not mentioned. Does that service provider, the sales part of it mention these things? 

Inappropriate uses is another thing. Compressed air is expensive, are you using it inappropriately where you could use something else? It's kind of a funny story, this is years ago, I got called up: “Sell us a new compressor! We need a bigger one, we can't keep up. We have the 50 HP now, and the next size up is a 75HP. Sell me that right away. Hurry up!” I said, I have to look at what's going on there. I'm not just going to sell you a bigger compressor. “Well, hurry up! We're losing production. The compressor's too small!”

So I go there and ask questions. Did you add on more machinery? Is that why you're using more air? I'd be happy to put in a new 75 HP. “No, we didn't add on anything new, but the compressor's too small! Sell me one quick!” Alright, so now we're walking around the plant, and I noticed that a lot of the operators took tubing off and pointed it at themselves to blow on themselves for air conditioning, to cool themselves off. It was hot!

I said all right, I got this figured out. You’ve got the most expensive air conditioning system in the world. Just get some fans for these people! You don't want to do anything detrimental to the plant workers, you know? But shut that air off, don't let them do that! Suggest a fan, a $5 fan, because I could give you a rule of thumb that I remember. If you put 100 PSI at 1/4 inch orifice – quarter inch orifice, so it's pretty small – it'll flow 100 CFM compressed air. 100 CFM is equivalent to a 25 HP, and a 25 HP is like 20 kilowatt. So that's thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars on your electric bill. You know, 20 kilowatt in a year.

PS: That's a step up on the story he told about the guy who wanted to go from 50 to 75 HP.

TM: Right. So that day I was a solutions guy. “Do not buy a new compressor. Don't do this with the tubing, inappropriate uses. Get some fans.” But you could have some salespeople, whether it's their knowledge, or maybe they have their CRM, and their boss, the sales manager, said hey, out of your five parts, you're in the red on four out of five. Pick up the pace a little bit, you’d better get some more quotes out there and get in the green. Maybe that person in that situation and the person's knowledge: “all right, I'm going to e-mail a quote for a 75 HP, I'm not even going to that plant.” 

I've seen it! They don't even show up. “You need a bigger compressor. Oh, I'd be happy to sell you one now.” Is that really a solutions person? That's another thing you hear all day long. “We're a solutions company.” Well, practice what you put on your website. So those are some of the points on the sales side that you could look for, and I think like you had said, Tom, you can kind of spot if it's a solutions guy, like that kind of funny story about the tubing.

PS: That's a good transition to the last topic we're going to talk about, which is considerations around the company identity. In terms of the company itself, we're going beyond the technical skills, we're going beyond the contact with the technical sales engineers, those kind of folks. What should end users look for to help them make a good decision when it comes to the company itself?

TM: One thing to look for if it's important to you is the structure, how the company is set up. Maybe what works for you would be if they really have the departments in place – a sales department, a service department, the sales department, parts department. This is something that comes up all the time – some people have to have it, some people are OK without it: the brick and mortar office, kind of in the neighborhood. Because that local office is going to have parts on the shelf, you know? Can you give them good, fast support with a local office?

Do they have that equipment in stock if you need to buy something? How about rentals? If you're in trouble, do they have rentals in their in their facility? Again, I can remember one time a good customer was just in a bind. It was running hot and he was low on oil. I raced into our shop, put a 5 gallon pail of oil in my car and raced out to him. So again, OK, I did good that day, but we had a local shop and an office. 

What does the office and shop look like? You know, maybe, maybe before you make a decision, take a look, see if it's good, clean, organized. Do they have good systems in place? Some are OK with the service tech filling out a paper ticket, and some are really, “you know, I like that your guy has a tablet, he’s filling out his paperwork on his tablet.” It's all in the cloud and organize all the information.

And just some of the common sense stuff, just like anything else. Do they have references? Can they give you some good references from plants they work at? That's a good indication that they do some pretty good work. Maybe go into some of those compressor rooms, see what they look like. Does it look like a clean nice compressor room? Is the pipe plumb and level? 

Finally, some of the requirements like we had mentioned before: do they have the right insurance coverage, things like that? And then one thing I'm seeing more and more, especially on the bigger plants, is they farm out some of the systems, like the billing and the safety programs. They don't do that in-house, they kind of delegate that and there's companies out there that handle all that for these big plants. So if you're not a subscriber to that company to do the billing and the invoicing and set up the service calls and they look at your safety programs, you can't step foot in that plant, and it happens over and over again. 

For our branch in Florida we do some big work in mines and power plants, and we belong to this one company that that handles all that stuff, and it is time consuming. First of all, you have to subscribe and it's a cost, so you have to make a business decision. And then it's a lot of work, you can just get an e-mail: “hey, we don't have your latest safety manual. You can't step foot in the plant. You're now rated an F. Get back up to an A and then you could come into the plant.” It was so much work in our Florida branch. Our general manager handled it himself. He didn't delegate it. He stayed on top of it, and it was a lot of work and costly. But if you wanted to work in that plant, you have to do it. So is the is the company set up to do that, if that's required.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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